Recently Jasper had a nightmare that I was shot a bunch of times. I didn’t die, but when they took me to the hospital, the doctors there killed me and turned me into a robot. He was sitting on my lap in the living room chair telling me this, and he started to cry.
“It reminded me of Balthazar, and it made me sad,” he sobbed.
“Why does it remind you of Balthazar?” I asked, a little perplexed. I had thought the dream was about his fear of losing me, but obviously there was more going on.
“Because we can’t bring him back.”
Jasper and I have been watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer together. There’s a lot of death on the show, but because it’s fantasy death is often of the “yes, but” variety. Vampires are dead, and yet they walk and talk and sometimes fall in love and have souls. Buffy dies and yet conveniently there is magic to bring her back. Jasper has always maintained a sturdy sense of the difference between fact and fiction, but maybe watching the show has caused him to think more about death, and ways to evade it.
Although, to be fair, this loved-one-dying-and-becoming-a-robot theme long predates our Buffy watching. On April 8, 2012, five days after Balthazar was born, which also happened to be Easter Sunday, he told me that his stuffed dinosaur Phinly was dead and a robot. Occasionally we still talk about the fact that Phinly is a robot facsimile. The latest is that he is a regular dinosaur, but has robotic implants in his neck.
In some ways Jasper is miles ahead of where he was then, and so grown up. But in trying to make sense of death his unconscious still goes right to robots. A robot looks like your loved one. A robot might sound like your loved one, or do things she would do, but a robot is a machine. There is no blood, no heart. Jasper knows that his unconscious is grasping at straws. A robot mom wouldn't be his mom, even if a robot mom were possible. We decided that I would not die and be turned into a robot.
We can never have Balthazar back, robot or otherwise.
A couple of nights later, while cuddling on the couch watching Buffy, he referred to Balthazar again. “I will always have a hole in my heart,” he said.
Now it’s me looking for a workaround. I desperately parse the sentence. Does it really have to be always? Can it be just for a few years? Something he will outgrow, like his asthma? Or could the hole be really really tiny, like a microscopic hole? Something so small he forgets it’s there? What can I do to take this pain from him? There has to be something. Anything.
When Jasper was little he and I would often walk up our street to the coffee shop on the corner. Along the way, Jasper liked to collect the tiny plastic bbs that collected in the crevices of the sidewalk. He thought that they rained down from the sun during the night, and I didn't have the heart to tell him that neighborhood kids shot the neon orange and green balls from their bb guns. His invented poetry of them falling from the sun at night was so lovely and magical.
Most of the children on the street were older than he was, as evidenced by the bbs and the preponderance of basketball hoops. But there was one boy, a year or so older, who lived in a big Craftsman foursquare about three-quarters of the way up the street. He was a sturdy kid with straight fair hair like Jasper's.
"Asper!" he would call from the yard when we walked by, holding up a dump truck or an action figure. There was no chance that we could pass by without a visit.
One afternoon when Jasper was three and Eric was four, they started playing superheroes. Playing superheroes, at their age, consisted entirely of setting the parameters for the game. Accordingly, they began to organize things: who was who, what powers they had. Because Eric was older he took the lead, which Jasper, being a bossy only child, was a little bit annoyed by. I had mounted the steps to the porch to say hello to Eric's mother, so I missed some of the negotiations. On my way back down the stairs Eric said something, presumably to the effect that Jasper's superhero character was make-believe.
"No, I'm real," he said, emphatically, confidently. "My mommy says I'm real."
When Jasper announced to Eric that he was real, I understood, in a way that had been up until that point intuitive, not conscious, what a mother is for. A mother does more than create a child physically, does more than keep his body alive with her milk and her jars of baby food, car seats and fleece hats. It was the thing I had seen when Jasper was first born and we looked into each other’s eyes. A mother, in her look and her touch and her words, makes a child real.
There was no hesitation in Jasper's voice. There was no doubt. His incontrovertible proof was me. I had said so, and it was true. Like the boy in The Velveteen Rabbit, who had animated his stuffed rabbit with his love, my love had done this.
The dark side of this tremendous power is that a mother also can, by neglect or abuse, teach a child that he isn’t real. I’ve worked so hard to spare Jasper that emotional damage. I’ve been obsessed with empathy and with stability, the crucial things I lacked. Consistent engagement, physical affection. Not much criticism, no shame. Eight years in the same house. Four years at the neighborhood school where I volunteer and hang out and know everyone. He’s had the same best friend since he was four, and he needs both hands and both feet to count the rest of his pals. When I was eight did I even have any friends?
I’m sure every generation makes the same promise to their children. I’m sure my father vowed that my brother and I would never feel the pain of his childhood. He tried to spare us the financial deprivation, and he made sure we never felt the strap. But there were other things he couldn’t have anticipated or prepared for. I think that’s just how it works.
Because I’ve failed. Despite my best efforts I haven’t spared Jasper, I’ve just given him a different variety of suffering. I’ve made an empathetic, sensitive, loving boy. And he’s been hurt. I didn’t mean for it to happen, but it did anyway. Are the things I’ve done well enough to see him through the rest? If I prayed I would pray for that.